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The Tracks of Our Tiers

It could take years before the seven emerging research universities in Texas (Texas Tech University, the University of Houston, the University of North Texas, the University of Texas at Dallas, the University of Texas at Arlington, the University of Texas at San Antonio and the University of Texas at El Paso) transform themselves into top-tier research campuses — if they do at all. But the state now pays them for demonstrated progress toward that goal, pitting them against one another in competition for limited funds. Officials from all seven will appear before a joint hearing of the House and Senate higher education committees today, seeking to show off progress to lawmakers and to size up where they stand against their peers.

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Seven Texas universities will meet in the Capitol today, all seeking the most coveted of higher education grails: so-called tier-one status.

It could take years before any of the emerging research universities transform into top-tier research institutions — if they do at all. But the state now pays them for demonstrated progress toward that goal, pitting them against one another in competition for limited funds.

The joint hearing of the House and Senate higher education committees will mark their first chance to assure lawmakers — who easily passed a landmark bill in 2009 geared toward growing the number of tier ones in Texas, despite its nearly $300 million fiscal note — that the state's money will not go to waste. If problems have arisen with the rules of the game established by House Bill 51, this hearing will be the first chance to voice them in an official forum. It will also provide the universities, which have spent the last year largely focused on their own performance, a chance to size up where they stand against their peers.

Currently, Texas has only three tier-one universities; California has nine — a source of some embarrassment in Texas and a drag on economic development. Two are public, the University of Texas and Texas A&M University, and one is private, Rice University. Heading into the 2009 legislative session, state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, the chair of the House Committee on Higher Education and the author of HB 51, says the state had a perception problem despite its famous business-friendly atmosphere. Texas was not viewed as "serious about investing in higher education,” he says. “We needed to get moving, and we needed to make a serious statement, and we did that.”

The seven universities in the “emerging research” category — one sizable step below tier-one — battling it out in the metaphorical ring are Texas Tech University, the University of Houston, the University of North Texas, and University of Texas campuses in Dallas, Arlington, San Antonio and El Paso.

The new scenario replaces a harmful dynamic that caused universities to lobby against one another. Any single school's effort to become nationally competitive brought the wrath of the others, which wanted state money to do the same. “A simple request for additional resources to UT-Dallas would almost certainly be met by other universities with criticism saying, ‘Why not us?,’” says David Daniel, the president of the UT-Dallas.

Now the state makes the money available to all of the emerging research universities. But because there’s only so much money to go around, it forces them to earn it by meeting a set of benchmarks. 

"I expect [the presidents] to say that their student body is re-energized on research and excellence, because that’s what the bill focuses on," says state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, the chair of the Senate Committee on Higher Education, who sponsored HB 51 on the Senate side.

Show me the money

The interim president of the University of North Texas, V. Lane Rawlins, will be making his first appearance before the Legislature at today’s hearing. “I’ve been doing this in various states for about 20 years,” Rawlins says of his previous run-ins with lawmakers in Washington and Tennessee, “and every time I’ve had the chance to speak with the legislature, my main point is that we need more money.” His message today, when lawmakers check in with the schools on how they are handling the legislation, will be no different.

Multiple pools of cash are in play. Since the legislation went into effect, much of the focus has been on the Texas Research Incentive Program, or TRIP, which matches state money with gifts and endowments geared toward research: The larger the donation, the greater the percentage the state matches. Gifts of $2 million or more are matched 100 percent by the state. The money comes from a $50 million pool of TRIP money, which took some legislative wrangling — and was quickly snatched up by the universities.

With donors energized by the prospect of the match, the money almost instantly dried up — but not before infusing the seven universities with a combined total nearly $110 million. The big winners: Texas Tech and UT-Dallas, which received $21 million and $15 million, respectively, in matched funds, amounts that about doubled their private gifts.

Expected by many to excel in fundraising, the University of Houston turned in a relatively poor showing of less than $5 million in matching funds earned. Zaffirini, who attended UH, scolded the system's board of regents: "With all of your resources, you should have been No. 1," she told them. She says the regents countered that Houstonians who had been educated elsewhere opted to give to their alma maters — an excuse Zaffirini did not accept.

"All of the hometowns of these universities should want a national research university, not for the status but because of the economic multiplier," she says. The University of Texas at San Antonio, for example, estimates that a metamorphosis into a national research university could mean more than $2.5 billion added to the city’s economy and 41,000 additional jobs. The UH pitch includes more than 5,000 new jobs, $129 million in wages for the region and $7.5 million in additional state revenue.

Objective and subjective goals

While the university presidents will naturally seek more TRIP money, Branch says their chances are low. “You have the question of limited funds and a tight budget year,” Branch says. “We’ve got to get through a short-term trough without losing our momentum in higher ed. That’s going to be the challenge of the session.”

"Members of the higher ed community will have to be at their persuasive best," Zaffirini says.

Meanwhile, the big prize remains untouched. With the approval of Texas voters in November 2009, the dormant Higher Education Fund (which couldn’t be used until it reached the unattainable level of $2 billion) was converted into the National Research University Fund, currently valued at approximately $550 million.

Access to the fund comes by meeting a set of criteria that none of the seven universities have yet reached and that has some elements still to be defined by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. The uncertainty underscores part of the difficulty in competing for tier-one status: There's no set definition for the term and no clear signal that it has been achieved.

Some of the requirements are clear: an endowment of at least $400 million, at least 200 Ph.D.s conferred in each academic year of the preceding biennium and at least $45 million expenditures in restricted research funds in each fiscal year of the preceding biennium. Others — an entering freshman class that demonstrates “high academic achievement” and an institution that demonstrates “a commitment to high-quality graduate education” — are less objective. And some that seem simple, like being a member of the Association of Research Libraries or having a chapter of the honor society Phi Beta Kappa on campus, may be fudge-able depending on when and what the coordinating board decides or on the definition of "equivalent.” For example, while only Texas Tech has a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, all the universities, excluding UTSA, have a chapter of Phi Kappa Phi, a similar honor society.

Only the restricted research requirement seems non-negotiable. Of the six other thresholds, four have to be met. By those metrics, it would seem that Texas Tech and UH, with their large endowments and recognized libraries, would have an early edge. But UT-Dallas has the higher-achieving entering class — if high SAT scores and high school rankings indicate such a thing.

“I think there are a lot of people who probably think of UTEP and some of the other institutions as underdogs,” says Diana Natalicio, the president of UTEP. “But it’s not just about having a big endowment. It’s about creativity, leveraging and playing smart. I don’t worry about what other institutions have and don’t have.”

Natalicio does worry the competition may get too bogged down in details. “We only need to focus on two things,” she says. “That’s $100 million in annual research expenditures and 200 doctoral degrees awarded.” Her reluctance to see any stricter guidelines imposed stems from the notable differences among the seven schools in significant factors of size, location, resources and student make-up. “We are not cut from the same mold,” she says. “We are all quite different. We will each have to follow a slightly different pathway — or maybe very different.”

  Endowment (millions) Ph.D.s (2008) Restricted Research (millions) Mid-Range SAT Scores Freshmen in Top 10 %
Texas Tech $410 184 $35 990-1200 21%
UH $491 208 $50 970-1190 24%
UT-Dallas $224 111 $37 1080-1350 36%
UTEP $135 31 $30 800-1020 20%
UNT $91 146 $11 980-1210 21%
UT-Arlington $64 153 $27 950-1190 24%
UTSA $48 48 $26 920-1190 10%

[Above, selected data that may prove crucial to the tier-one race are provided for the sake of comparison. Spending more than $45 million on restricted research is absolutely required to get state funding for research campuses. Two consecutive years of conferring more than 200 Ph.D.s, an endowment of more than $400 million, and  an incoming class with "high academic achievement" are optional benchmarks.]

Head to head

Whether they travel together or separately, each university wants its road to end in the same place, though it wouldn’t hurt to get there first. Nonetheless, some insist the competitors won't turn bloodthirsty. “This is not about competition — that wouldn’t be healthy,” Rawlins says. “If — let’s say randomly — University of Houston is classified as meeting the criteria, I’d like to be at the party to congratulate them. That’s the attitude we should take. Excellence is not a zero-sum game.”

Others thrive on the head-to-head nature of the set-up. “I welcome the competition,” Daniel says. “The competition simply encourages making good choices.”

It might take years, even decades, before Texas gets its fourth tier-one university. In the meantime, other schools — those not yet even considered “emerging” — want badly to get in the game. When asked by the Tribune in early August how he felt about the fact that none of the schools in the Texas State University System had been invited to compete for tier-one status, chancellor Brian McCall (who co-authored HB 51 in his previous life as a House member from Plano) looked to the future. “We’re not [in it], but that doesn’t mean we won't be,” he said. 

Branch agrees. “This is not a closed society," he says. "That’s the great thing about the competition: Someone could fall out and someone could be added. This thing is still evolving.”

[Editor's Note: This story was updated to clarify that certain NRUF requirements must be met in each year of the preceding biennium and not just the two preceding years.]

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Higher education Judith Zaffirini Texas A&M University-College Station Tier One universities